Sherwan Haji in The Other Side of Hope (Janus Films)

A timely fablelike tale that commingles the stories of a restaurant owner and a Middle Eastern refugee, The Other Side of Hope showcases the best of master writer/director Aki Kaurismäki. With dry wit and an uncommon humanity, the Finnish auteur presents the second installment in his trilogy of films on the global refugee crisis, after 2006’s Le Havre. Accessible and droll, and with his signature retro look and sensibility, the new film is an easy introduction to the filmmaker’s style, one that has been an influence on Jim Jarmusch and other moviemakers.

The unlikely friendship between the two men centers on a struggling Helsinki food establishment, where each finds himself during a quest for a new life. First, deadpan middle-aged shirt salesman Wikström (Kaurismäki regular, Sakari Kuosmanen) packs a suitcase and wordlessly relinquishes his wedding ring to his wife. With packaged shirts in the back of his car, he sets outs to meet with a longtime buyer (Kati Outinen, laugh-out-loud funny) and learns that she, too, is ready for a change. With a stunning matter-of-fact wrongheadedness, she proclaims that she is moving to Mexico to “drink sake and dance hula hula.”

Betting all his money in a high-stakes poker game, Wikström collects a windfall and uses it to quit sales and reinvent himself as a restaurateur. The old-fashioned Golden Pint is available, complete with regular customers and quirky employees, due to the dodgy financial situation of the previous owner.

Meanwhile, a shipboard stowaway emerges out of a heap of coal on arrival in Finland. Soot-covered Khaled (newcomer Sherwan Haji, noteworthy) then embarks on a bumpy course to obtain refugee status, believing, as many do, that “Finland has equality for all.” Having lost most of his family in Syria in harrowing atrocities, he has crossed many borders to find his sister and, if possible, to obtain legal residence. The police station is his first stop, and he recites his route (Turkey, Greece, Hungary, Poland) in a rigorous interview. He befriends Mazdak (Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon), a displaced person from Iraq, who advises him that he should feign cheerfulness because “All melancholics are sent back.”

At the hearing, an official spokesman announces that there is no threat in Aleppo, Khaled’s hometown, so he is denied asylum and must be deported. Immediately afterwards, a television channel broadcasts the alarming news that a children’s hospital in that very city has been bombed. Khaled escapes and takes off in search of his sister, the only member of his family alive.

Wikström comes across Khaled sleeping outside the restaurant in its garbage area, and after a battle of wills (and fists) resulting from masculine pride, he offers him a job as a janitor at the Golden Pint. He also gives him a place to sleep in the empty storage unit that previously housed his shirt inventory. The welcoming restaurant crew of misfits becomes as close-knit as a family and (no surprise coming from canine-lover Kaurismäki) adopts a dog and hides it, along with Khaled, from inspectors. Hilariously, the restaurant switches cuisines to increase business, transforming into a trendy sushi restaurant with the staff clad in kimonos. The naïve crew substitutes herring for salmon when it runs out and piles eye-popping mounds of wasabi on the fish.

Suffusing the film is the director’s typical 1950s look, honed over the past 35 years through more than a dozen features, including such highlights as The Match Factory Girl and Man Without a Past. With a backdrop of twangy guitars and Finnish country music, nostalgic dress and mannerisms, along with vintage cars, a jukebox, a mechanical typewriter and the like, the sense of another time is conveyed. There is no mistaking it for the past, though—Khaled’s fingerprints are obtained digitally, and his fake ID is created with a hacker’s special equipment.

A bittersweet ending brings a touch of realism to Khaled’s travails as Wikström continues on at the restaurant. Nevertheless, the film’s message, relayed without sentimentality, is that we all need each other and empathy rules the day, making this an entertaining and heartfelt film.

Written and Directed by Aki Kaurismäki
Released by Janus Films
Finnish, English, and Arabic with English subtitles
Finland/Germany. 98 min.
With Sherwan Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen, Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon, and Kati Outinen